I’ve spent much of the past week lying in a hammock reading books being gently caressed by a soft breeze floating in from the river Alde, while thinking about vulnerability and regret.
Holidays are, for most of you, I know, a source of great excitement and pleasure, but I don’t really feel that way about a break from routine, although it turns out that going somewhere we can take the dogs with the availability of a hammock just about tips the balance.
It was our final week before my daughter moves back to University so the time spent together felt especially precious.
In order to keep my hand in and pay for an abundance of ice cream cones I did a bit of work answering questions submitted by users of the workplace mental health organisation I freelance for.
The one that stuck in my mind was about regret and an inability to let go of a decision to the extent that past mistakes were projected into a bleak imagined future.
“I don’t know how to get past this,” came the exclamation, or something similar.
As my children have both this year moved out to a place of independence I too have been thinking about regret linked to the inevitability of poor parenting.
I know there will be ways in which I have been a sub-optimal parent because I am human.
But it’s hard to know what to regret about my parenting until such time as my kids end up in therapy with someone like me.
I have thought too about appropriate vulnerability and how tough it is to judge how much to share when it involves one’s children.
My own father never showed much emotion at all and the message I gleaned from my mother, although I’m sure not one she intended, was that her needs were paramount and whatever I did ought to chime closely with whatever would make her happy.
As a consequence, I seem to have lived largely by two rules when it comes to emotion and my own children.
I say “seem to” because I haven’t done it consciously.
Rule one, show them everything I feel even if it might be hard for them to see.
Rule two, do everything to ensure they don’t ever feel the need to take responsibility for my happiness.
I’m not suggesting these are “correct” or even “good” rules but they are clearly a reaction to the legacy of my own childhood.
Parenting is such a delicate balancing act but mostly we veer from one extreme to another in an effort to deliver the opposite of anything impotent or painful in our own developmental years.
Whatever else it has done it does feel as if it has helped to create an easy and open relationship with my daughter where clear boundaries exist but a productive vulnerability emerges whenever they are mutually lowered.
There is no route to a close personal relationship without vulnerability because all of us are unreachable without openness and a willingness to risk being properly “seen”.
I did not experience vulnerability from either of my parents and it left me, even now, decades after their deaths, wondering who exactly they were and where they had come from. A hole that aches no less with the passing of time.
Whatever my own children say about me in the future I doubt they will describe our relationship in that way.
The question from the client about regret made me think about how I have no idea if ever I went too far and showed them more than they needed or wanted to see.
In my answer, I wrote about the danger of “time travel”, the constant reflection on the past fuelling the projection of worries into an imagined future, and the way in which both rob us of the chance to live in the only place we have any agency at all, the present moment.
If regret has a purpose it is surely in learning from a past self the follies worth avoiding in a future self, but as a way of punishing ourselves it can only be destructive.
For my birthday recently my daughter bought me a book.
“It looked liked the sort of story you’d enjoy,” she said.
“The Island Of Missing Trees,” one of the books I read in the hammock, is about love, loss, and what “home” really means besides a physical place you can stand.
It’s also about vulnerability and regret, the joy that can be found in opening oneself up without thinking too much about the possible pitfalls and difficulties that might result, and how it’s the only route to deep and lasting relationships whatever challenge it might throw up along the way.
The only person who could guess I would enjoy a book like that is someone who really knows me.